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Evidence check: Universal Infant Free School Meals

Education Committee

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19 Contributions (since 18 November 2014)
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Andrew Jolley

10 December 2014 at 15:14

Nutrition Paragraph 4 is little more than a distraction whilst Para 5 is seriously misleading UIFSM might be part of wider program to increase healthy eating, but it is not justified on the back of it. Better education of both parents and children is by far the best way of instilling healthy eating habits and a great deal of work on this was done in the school food plan. It seems very likely that implementing the proposed changes to food education will make far more difference to health, than the provision of 190 free meals a year for 3 years of a child’s life. I would point people to para 2 page 3, of the UFSM pilot report, which states “There was no evidence that the FSM pilot led to significant health benefits during the two year pilot period. For example, there was no evidence of any change in children’s Body Mass Index.” The DfEs expectations of benefits are not based on any evidence and are little more than a hoped for asperation. The example given of a rise in vegetables eaten and reduction in crisps, was self-reported by parents, which brings into question the validity of it as firm evidence, added to the fact that in providing free hot lunches, these outcomes are extremely likely. It might also be worth noting that the school food standards are not applicable to all schools, as most academies do not have to comply with any standards.

Andrew Jolley

10 December 2014 at 14:43

Social and behavioural benefits. “Schools in the pilot areas were seen to engender a culture where children sat down to eat with friends and teachers in a civilised environment: broadening social skills, teaching table manners and supporting equality and fairness by levelling differences in social background” They say this as though it is only achievable with universal free school meals! Many children in many schools do sit down together at lunch, the main reason children don’t, is the lack of adequate hall space rather than some conscious decision. The school food plan makes many recommendations on improving the environment, none of which rely on introducing free school meals to all children I am incredulous that in an evidence check document, the DfE put up a headline mentioning behaviour, yet fail to mention or provide any supporting facts on improved behaviour. Once again there is NO substantive evidence to support any claims about improved social skills OR behaviour.

Andrew Jolley

10 December 2014 at 14:35

Higher take-up of school lunches amongst other children – I would point out that finding more people eat when you are giving out free food, shouldn’t come as a shock. It’s a bit like opening a free bar and being surprised people drink more beer. We should exert caution on being over reliant on the suggestion that some packed lunches are not as healthy as we would like, therefore we must provide universal meals for free. The school food standards the University of Leeds measured against, were never designed to be applied to homemade packed lunches and they were never communicated to parents. Many children are given a relatively light lunch, in the knowledge that they will have a larger heathier meal later on. We should also acknowledge that much has been done by schools and other organisations to address the healthiness of packed lunches, raising awareness and educating parents on the issue. All of this can be done without the need to provide UIFSM and so avoiding the cost of providing meals to children whose already take school meals and who would receive no benefit from the policy.

Andrew Jolley

10 December 2014 at 14:18

Increased take-up of meals amongst children from low-income families Whilst the pilot did find an increase in take up, this cannot be attributed solely to the universality of the meal provision. It is well documented in the report that there was considerable extra work undertaken on promoting awareness and improving take up within the pilot areas. It should also be noted that the end of the pilot coincided with the introduction of the pupil premium, when many schools pushed to increase FSM take up due to the financial benefits of PP. Automating the FSM entitlement and removing the application process, would in one stroke address in full, the issue of low FSM take up by those entitled but not claiming. It is my understanding that the government is aware of which parents are entitled to FSM but who are not claiming. The DfE could automate the system, providing FSM and the associated PP, to everyone entitled, but it chooses not to do so. As recently highlighted in the all-party inquiry into hunger, “1.5 million poor children are automatically disqualified from receiving free school meals because their parents are in work” if DfE wanted to address take up from low-income families, it could look at fixing this, seemingly more pressing priority and look at the criteria it uses for FSM entitlement. This would directly increase take-up of meals amongst children from low-income families. Again DFE add a nice sounding red herring. I haven’t seen any evidence that directly attributes the increase in take up to the reduction in stigma (stigmatisation isn’t really a problem in KS1 where the policy applies). Even if stigma were an issue in infants, there is no need for any child in receipt of FSM to be singled out by the school, there is plenty of good practice being spread around at the moment, including recommendations in the school food plan. All of which can be done without introducing UIFSM.

Andrew Jolley

05 December 2014 at 16:52

Improved performance in the classroom Even if we ignore the fact there is no evidence universal infant free school meals on its own makes a difference. We still face a number of issues supporting the policy based on the findings of the pilot. For infants, the increased performance seen in the pilot was marginal at best. I was surprised that Dfe state in their memorandum “pupils in the pilot areas making between four and eight weeks’ more progress in English and mathematics than similar pupils in comparison areas” DfE know full well that the 8 weeks progress PA relate to older KS2 children not covered by the UIFSM policy. Overall, the pilot found Infants made 4 weeks extra progress a year. The inclusion of the higher KS2 figure is a regular occurrence and in my view is a deliberate attempt to deceive and mislead. The improvements observed in infants (detailed in Section 4 of the UFSM Pilots report) are decidedly unimpressive; over the 2 years the pilot saw a 1.9 percentage point (ppt) increase in the proportion of pupils reaching the expected level in reading at Key Stage 1 and a 2.2ppt increase for maths at Key Stage 1. Overall, this it barely statistically significant! UFSM actually had a negative effect on academic achievement for a large number of children in the pilot. “there was no significant effect on the standardised average point score for the population as a whole in area B” “the pilot had no impact on pupils who scored in the highest quartile ” the trail actually had a negative impact on some of the highest performing 25% of children. All things considered, the progress off infants in the pilot was nothing special, a weak positive at best. Which leads to an interesting point. IF the pilot provides evidence of improved progress as a result of UFFSM, why not implement the policy where the greatest impact was seen? KS2 progress in the pilot was Twice that of KS1, so why target the cohort that benefit least? If we are going to implement a policy based on the pilot, then surely that should be universal JUNIOR free school meals? To put the 4 weeks increase into context, it is worth looking at the education endowment foundation toolkit which lists a number of well researched interventions, ( ) select primary and sort by months progress, then compare the 1 month found in the pilot to all the alternatives.

Andrew Jolley

04 December 2014 at 12:30

The DfE state the UIFSM policy is designed to: “Improve educational attainment” they then go on to put up the Evaluation of the Universal pilot as evidence for the introduction of the UIFSM policy. This is a key point, as they conflate the 2009/11 pilot, which included a number of additional interventions, with their policy of universal infant free school meals. On reading the report and comments from experts, it is clear that the pilot provides no specific evidence to support the introduction of a universal fee school meals policy. The pilot assessment was quite open about stating its position, with numerous statements acknowledging doubts about any causation “These effects on attainment could have arisen through the provision of free school meals directly or through the wider activities that accompanied the pilot, such as the promotion of school meals and healthy eating to pupils and parents, or both” (pg 2) “The source of these improvements in productivity is not clear” (pg 3) “It is important to note that the mechanisms underlying the improvements in attainment observed in the universal pilot are not clear.” (Pg 14, para 4) Recently, Ellen Greaves, who led the lead the assessment of the impact of free school meals for the Department of Education stated; “It is not clear from this evidence that these positive outcomes will be repeated in the roll out of free school meals to all infant pupils across the country. Reasons to be cautious come from differences between the two pilot areas and the national scheme. For example, the two trial areas were relatively disadvantaged and the benefits might be lower in more affluent areas, where more pupils might already pay for school meals or eat nutritious packed lunches; the pilots included events such as talks and taster sessions, to encourage greater take-up of school meals, and these may not happen in every school nationally; and while offering universal free school meals appeared to raise pupil attainment, we can`t say how, as we found no evidence of significant differences in behaviour, health or nutrition. The findings of the evaluation should therefore be thought of as a guide only, and considered in relation to the whole pilot approach rather than just the provision of free school meals. Unfortunately, it will be very difficult to evaluate whether the national roll-out of universal free school meals raises pupils’ attainment, because it is hard to know what would have happened to pupils’ outcomes without the scheme.” At the time of the pilot reports publication, Public Health England reviewed the evidence and concluded “An evaluation of the Free School meals pilot in England found that the universally extending provision of school lunch eligibility to all students impacted on attainment at Key Stages 1 and 2. However, the study was unable to establish if this was the result of providing free school meals or the wider package of activities associated with the pilot.” Yet the main argument used in support of this policy is that the pilot showed UIFSM will improve performance in the classroom. There is no evidence that the provision of universal free school meals on its own WILL impact children’s attainment, no causation was ever found. Put simply, the introduction of free meals might make no difference at all, the improved performance seen in the pilot, may have been down to the methodology used or any one of the other activities going on at the same time. DfE appear to be making the evidence fit the policy rather than the other way round.

Louise Adms

21 November 2014 at 06:36

Disincentives to work? Look at the cost of school meals pre-tax to the parents of those earning over £16,700 and then times that by the amount of children a person has (it is not £400 per child more like £790 by the time tax, NI and tax credit reduction is in place, then again this £790 is taken as gross earnings for housing and council tax benefit, so the figure is more like £1000 per child a parent will earn gross). The cut off point for free school meals now too low for all children. If education is a legal requirement then free school meals should be available for all school children.

Clare Newman

19 November 2014 at 15:46

As most infant schools in my area do not have a kitchen, the food is delivered in trays, is reheated and then served to the child. Yes if you want to give every child a free hot meal, make sure the school has a kitchen to prepare fresh food in. Also, if you give a child a packed lunch you know, when they get home, what they have eaten. However my son's school did start sniffing drinks bottles to check was only water = which I complained about. Government have to realise that the majority of parents what is best for their child and this is not it. A better policy would have been if the money spent on this had been spent supporting 1 parent to remain at home with the child until they were ready to start juniors, however the government have the strange skewed idea that families have children but don't want to actually spend any time with them.

Hannah Newman-Evans

19 November 2014 at 08:43

As a parent this policy makes me quite angry. Lots of reforms in this government, have focused on removing the responsibility of parental care from parents to the state at the earliest possible point. If they are concerns for children's diet, and it's effect on the social and academic outcomes, then surely the best remedy is not this band aid policy. More focus on the importance of family is needed, less pressure on mother's to return to work, and more respect for the profession of homemaking.

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